Rules That Work

Bibliophilist Society, Book Reviews, Classic Books and Ideas, Editors

Miranda Alexander

Words have power.  They can create and they can destroy.  Too often I think we forget just how vital they are and how much we cling to them.  We forget the very earth we inhabit was spoken into existence.  We forget our tongues have the potential to cut deeper than the sharpest blade.

So, how do we avoid damaging others and ourselves with the words that leave our mouth?  Dr. Frank Luntz provides a list of ten rules for effective language in his book, Words That Work.  The first rule we must keep in mind is use small words.  “Avoid words that might force someone to reach for the dictionary…because most Americans won’t” (Luntz 5).  Your audience will do one of two things, they will allow the intended meaning go over their heads or, even worse, misunderstand completely.  Use short words while delivering your message.  When we use lengthy words when short words would suffice, it tends to put listeners on defensive mode: “What are they attempting to sell me?  Do they have a hidden agenda?”  

This first rule blends into the second rule.  Use short sentences.  Short sentences are far more likely to stick in the brain.  “The most memorable political language is rarely longer than a sentence” (Luntz 7).  Sentences such as “I like Ike” or “Silent Cal”. 

Rule number three: credibility.  Your audience must believe your words in order to buy them.  As Lincoln once said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  If your words lack sincerity, if they contradict accepted facts, circumstances, or perceptions, they will lack impact” (Luntz 8).  This is a rule that has been broken by various politicians and companies repeatedly.  As a result, their words no longer possess power.

How do we maintain our credibility?  The answer can be found in rule number four; consistency.  “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.  Good language is like the Energizer Bunny.  It keeps going…and going…and going” (Luntz 11).  Let’s face it.  We are creatures of habit.  We wake up, get dressed, eat, and carry out our daily routine before crashing face first on the bed just to begin the cycle again in the morning.  We find a certain amount of comfort in predictability and this also applies to words we hear.  “Finding a good message and then sticking with it takes extraordinary discipline, but it pays off tenfold in the end.  Remember, you may be making yourself sick by saying the same exact same thing for the umpteenth time, but many in your audience will be hearing it for the first time” (Luntz 12).

Rule number five: novelty.  To simply put it, words that work usually involve a new definition of an old idea. If we are all being honest, we cannot deny the fact that we are prone to become bored.  Whether its a device, song, show, or idea, we are notorious of growing tired of it.  We like new things.  Plain and simple.  So, how do we not bore our listeners to tears?  “From a business perspective, you should tell consumers something that gives them a brand-new take on an old idea.  The combination of surprise and intrigue creates a compelling message” (Luntz 15).

The sixth rule involves sound and texture.  As strange as this rule may seem, it packs a heavy punch.  For example, the phrase “Snap, Crackle, Pop” automatically draws our thoughts to Kellogg’s Rice Krispies as well as the sound they make.  

Rule number seven is extremely significant.  Speak aspirationally.  “Messages need to say what people want to hear” (Luntz 18).  Aspiration is a force to be reckoned with in language. It allows the listener to relate to the words you speak, thus the message must be relatable.  “If the listener can apply the language to a general situation or human condition, you have achieved humanization.  But if the listener can relate that language to his or her own life experiences, that’s personalization” (Luntz 18).  Perhaps the most famous example derives from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Aspirational messages offer encouragement, hope, and challenge us to raise above our circumstances.

The next rule plays off of the previous rule.  Visualize.  “Visualizing has as much to do with words as it does with pictures, and there is one word in the English language that automatically triggers the process of visualization by its mere mention, simply because it has 300 million unique, individual, personal manifestations to match the 300 million Americans” (Luntz 21). Imagine.   If your audience can imagine a possible and better world described by your words, you are doing something right.  

Rule number nine: ask a question.  This is a highly effective technique to use when trying to capture the audience’s attention.  Companies have advertised their products by asking the public questions such as “Can you hear me now?” (Verizon Wireless)  and “Where do you want to go today?” (Microsoft).  Questions provoke reflection, and you want people to think about your ideas, to mentally hang onto your words and mull them over.

Last and certainly far from least, rule number ten: provide context and explain relevance.  “You have to give people the “why” of a message before you tell them the “therefore” and the “so that” “(Luntz 26).  Context is the foundation for any impactful message.  Without it, the message loses its sense of value and relevance.  The order in which we present information determines context.  “The “so that” of a message is your solution, but solutions are meaningless unless and until they are attached to an identified problem.  Finding the right “why” to address is thus just as important as the “how” you offer” (Luntz 26).

If we make it a point to look to these rules in dark times, when much good and encouragement is needed, our voices will be heard.  Our ideas will inspire and touch many  lives.  Our words will bring about a better nation one word at a time.